Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 3
Of The Old Well
by H. M. Snow
I wish I could remember how long I’ve been down here. When I lift my hand to touch the mud-crusted wall, I feel deep gouges in a row. So many tally-marks to count the days, but I can’t tell how many. My fingers are numb, coated with cold mud from the bottom of this old well. I tried to keep count by the daylight at first. The sky is overcast now, and has been for a long time. Without noon’s light, the darkness here at the bottom never abates.
Why can I not remember? I might have been here months or years. No, not that long. I went to school longer than the rest and learned much. Corporeal man can endure long weeks without food, but water is essential. The body dies within only a few days without water. I remember that. I remember the moment when, half-mad with thirst, I filled my mouth with the watery mud at the bottom of this old well. It felt as though I began to rot from within from that moment onward.
It is dark, so dark down here. Too many times I have discovered my weak hands roaming the filthy walls, tracing the gouged tally-marks and the crude scratched words. There is nothing else to do down here– except to yield and die. When the sun shone, I read the words. It is strange that, though I can see almost nothing, I know these etchings as if reading them even now. Just above the pooled mud, the faintest of them read, Mama did not save me. Why? Why? The words curve downward and lose themselves in the mud, as if the writer lay prone while scratching each letter into the filth. I am sure I could not have written them myself, first because I have never called my mother ‘Mama’ like one of the common village urchins might. I was taught better than that. Second, I could not have written them because I would have drowned before I finished. The well must have been drier then, or the writer even more petite than I.
If I lift my face toward the mouth of the well, I can see a disc of gray above me. Higher than I can reach, more words arrest my gaze every time I look upward: large words, wrathful words, deeply carved words. Rage drove the hand that gouged those letters into the stone. A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. Uneducated, then, to believe in superstitions like curses, and strong enough to drive the words so deeply into the stone. It cannot have been my doing, but a man’s, a laborer’s.
I am not the first. How long have the innocent perished down here? And why? I wish I could remember the circumstances under which I came to be in this foul hole. When I cast my thoughts back, my memories differ each time. Sometimes I am certain that they came by night, secretly, and seized me from my bed. At other times my memories conjure up a lurid dawn sky and a remote pasture, when the crowds came to overpower me. Noon, evening, tea time: the only commonality to these memories is the horror of the faceless mob. They cannot all be true memories, but they are equally fearful to me. The days I lived before that day are faint now. I cling to what little I remember with certainty. I came to the village to teach. The villagers were polite, distant, clannish, like all rural people with little concept of society beyond their own. I taught their children during the day and returned to my rented cottage to prepare my lessons.
How long ago was that life mine? For that matter, how many days have passed since I heard a human voice? There was no disused well in the village. I am sure there was none. No one, not even a shadow of a human presence, passes overhead here. Silence weighs upon me, rings in my ears. Even in the solitude of my rented cottage, there was never this silence. Always the noisy children played at a distance and the village adults greeted one another in that gregarious way of country folk. Never was there any silence. An outsider myself, I knew so little about the ways of the village, but even I sensed the pockets of emptiness appearing in their ranks from time to time. I assumed that a few had chosen to seek a world of wider society and greater opportunity, but suppose they were…?
There, a fleeting sunbeam descended and then vanished so swiftly! The words it illuminated for that moment burn in my weakened vision: A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. How are they carved so deeply? Liquid mud surrounds me, inches deep. Beneath it, compacted mud forms a floor for the well. There is nothing that could be made into a tool for carving stone, I am sure. My numbed hands searching the liquid mud encounter only slick solid mud, smooth as though polished except around the perimeter. There I can feel something, but barely. If I work at it, I can free it from its mud bed. It is narrow, as long as my hand, jagged at one end and pointed at the other. Hollow as well. I know what it was at first, and what it became. I ought to be horrified, as any civilized woman ought, but I am not. Perhaps I knew all along that the gouges in the well wall could not have been etched by anything else. It feels wrong to hold it so casually like this, as if I had desecrated a grave. If I let it sink back into the mud, the mud will receive it back.
The mud receives everything in the end. I knew it, hid from it, but I acknowledge it now. The mud will receive me soon enough. I believe I knew it from the moment I succumbed to thirst and drank this putrid liquid. From that moment, I imbibed the essence of the ones who came to this dreadful end before me. These memories– if I can no longer discern between my own and theirs, then maybe the mud has received me already. When I lift my hand, I see only a lump of mud. Not even individual fingers, but a mass of filth. I wonder if my fingers have rotted away. Will I end like this, just like the rest?
Another shaft of light pierces the darkness of the old well. This time, the light is so strong and so pure that I reach toward it instinctively. My clumsy, insensate hand slaps the wall where the gouged tally-marks stand out like the scars of frantic claws. I can see all the marks of the prior victims for just a few seconds. I am reaching, reaching, ever higher toward the light, driven by a longing to live. Now I can feel the full desperation of those who succumbed to the mud before me. Their misery pushes me forward. I reach higher still, touching that forgotten man’s bitter curse and higher even than that. When did my arm grow so long? It rises like a column of soft mud. It seems ready to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Like the piercing light that even now fades back into gray, I feel the exquisite certainty that I can reach to the mouth of the well– not only reach, but pull myself out of the stagnant reek and into the light of the living world. I can. We can. We will.
Here now, I lay draped over the brink of my prison, clinging to the grass as a cloudburst drops its burden of rain on me. The rain cannot wash away the mud, but the mud absorbs the rain and spreads. My arm now is as thick as a man’s waist, swelled with the strength of fresh water. I feel my lower extremities dripping back down into the well. I am not strong enough to hold this new body together yet, but as the old well fills with rainwater, the rest of our body will soon reunite with me. A moment, a moment more, only a moment more and we will be free of the old well, free to seek the answers that we were denied. The rain turns all earth to mud, and all mud belongs to us now. We who were too weak to save ourselves, now our strength will know no limit. We will find out the reason why we were sacrificed in such a cruel way. We will stop this terrible injustice from happening ever again, even if we must turn the entire village to mud so that they feel our sorrow and our bitterness alongside us in this body.